The GiveWell Blog

Open Philanthropy Project update: U.S. policy

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding.

This post is an update on our plans for U.S. policy; a future post will discuss global catastrophic risks.

In brief:

  • Our thinking on how, and how much, to “commit” to causes has evolved. Rather than commit major time and funding up front to a small number of causes, we are going with a longer list of prioritized causes, and we’re looking for a good combination of “high-priority cause” with “strong specific giving and/or hiring opportunity.”
  • With that said, we feel that we’ve fulfilled the spirit of the above goal, about a month behind the date we had set. We’ve done a large number of shallow- and medium-depth cause investigations, and we’re now transferring the bulk of our energy from these sorts of investigations to seeking out hires and grants in the causes we’ve prioritized.
  • Our new goal is to be in the late stages of making at least one “big bet” – a major grant ($5+ million) or full-time hire – in the next six months. We think there is a moderate likelihood that we will hit this goal; if we do not, we will narrow our focus to a smaller number of causes in order to raise our odds.
  • Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire on criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, with an eye to either finding more giving opportunities (hopefully including at least one major one) or to developing a full-time job description. A more extensive summary of our priorities is available as a Google sheet.
  • We have recently been prioritizing investigation over public writeups, and there are many shallow- and medium-depth investigations we have completed but not written up. We are experimenting with different processes for writing up completed investigations – in particular, trying to assign more of the work to more junior staff – so our public writeups could remain behind our private investigations for much of the next few months.

Below, we go into more detail on:

  • Our progress since our May update. More
  • How our thinking and approach have evolved. More
  • Our plans from here. More

Progress since our May update
We’ve done internal shallow- and medium-level investigations – most of them not yet written up – on causes including:

  • Land use reform (e.g., zoning regulations), which we perceive as a cause with moderate importance and extremely little public-interest advocacy infrastructure (a green field).
  • Alcohol policy, which we have a similar assessment of, though our assessment of importance is still ongoing.
  • Aspects of intellectual property reform that go beyond software patent reform. We believe there are multiple interesting issues here, but nothing outstanding enough to be at the top of our priority list.
  • A broad set of issues around enhancing welfare by enhancing income security for relatively low-income people in the U.S. These include regulations around minimum wages, overtime, family and medical leave, the “minimum basic income” concept, etc. We initially expected this set of “traditional” issues to be too crowded and politically polarized to interest us, but having investigated more, we now believe there are a fair number of opportunities for funders to have impact at the state and local level, and that there isn’t enough funding to take advantage of all such opportunities.
  • The health care policy space. Our initial assessment is that this area seems very important but also quite crowded. We’re hoping to eventually investigate some sub-spaces that may be less crowded.

We’ve also put significantly more time into exploring causes that were already on our radar:

  • Criminal justice reform. We conducted a several-month, in-depth investigation of opportunities in criminal justice reform, a complex space and one that we see as high-priority due to the window of opportunity. The main findings from this investigation are available within this document (DOCX).
  • Macroeconomic policy. We came across what we considered a fairly outstanding giving opportunity in this area, the CPD Fed Up campaign, and invested a good deal of time in background research for this grant. (We put particular energy into understanding the complex debates behind the appropriate course of monetary policy.) We have provided $850,000.00 in support to this campaign to date.
  • Factory farming. Eliza Scheffler has conducted a medium-depth investigation of this cause; a writeup is forthcoming. We see this as a promising cause, and it is on our list to consider hiring in, pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives
  • Labor mobility. We have continued to work with Michael Clemens on finding and following giving opportunities in this space, and have been particularly following our grant to support IOM Haiti’s work facilitating seasonal migration.
  • Marijuana policy. We had been helping Good Ventures to navigate this cause as general support, but recently we’ve come to see an aspect of it – emphasizing optimal regulation rather than simply legalization – as a potential fit for the Open Philanthropy Project. Importance seems fairly low compared to most causes we are considering, but there is a very strong window of opportunity, and essentially no other funding focused on optimal regulation. We are still working on our estimate of the potential importance of this work, and expect to decide soon how to prioritize this cause.

Finally, we’ve done some cross-cutting work including:

How our thinking and approach have evolved
Through this work, our overall thinking on U.S. policy has shifted in several ways. Most importantly, we see a great deal of variation in how much different causes demand specialized, full-time, hires.

  • When looking at the criminal justice reform space, we see a very wide array of organizations that we could potentially support. In addition, there is room to have substantial impact in a broad variety of venues, from state-level policy changes (examples) to local-level experiments (example). We think that the “expert philanthropy model” would have major advantages over a lower-intensity approach in this space. We feel similarly about macroeconomic policy and factory farming, though in the case of macroeconomic policy the argument for “expert philanthropy” stems more from the complexity of the subject matter than the profusion of venues or potential grantees.
  • By contrast, causes like international labor mobility and land use reform present a different kind of challenge: there are very few people and organizations aligned with our priorities in these areas. Because of this, we can’t currently envision a full-time employee worth of high-value work to do in these areas. We also expect that the limited size of the fields would make it unusually difficult to find someone appropriate to work on these issues full time. Our current plan is to devote relatively little staff time to these causes beyond the level required to stay reasonably well-networked, while being explicitly open to potential grant opportunities and being prepared to devote significantly more staff time if a major grant opportunity arises.
  • Many causes occupy a middle ground. In many cases, it would not be unreasonable to take an “expert” approach to a cause, but we also feel we might maximize efficiency by understanding the cause at a high level and focusing on a small number of potentially outstanding giving opportunities. Examples in this range include foreign aid policy and tax policy. The decision to hold off on hiring experts in these areas is currently driven by a need to prioritize the use of our existing staff resources, rather than a view that it would be fundamentally mistaken to hire specialized staff in these areas.

Another general observation from working on U.S. policy is that we believe that the mix of policy priorities that is coming into focus for us does not map neatly onto progressivism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any other platform currently common in the U.S. policy world. This topic was a prominent theme in our recent day-long convening noted above.

This observation has a couple of implications. In the short run, we expect to have more difficulty than most funders with finding organizations that share our positions across a broad range of policy areas; we expect that we will find organizations/partners that share some but not all of our perspectives. For example, the organizations that share our views on land use policy may have a different take on income security. In the long run, we would like to strengthen and support the network of people who broadly share our policy priorities. Both of these are reasons to pursue a relatively broad philanthropic approach, keeping up on a large number of causes rather than specializing in a small number.

While there are many more cause investigations we could do, at this point we think it’s appropriate to shift our priorities in the direction of granting out significant funds in the causes we’ve already identified as promising. At the same time, we’re trying to give ourselves the flexibility to look across multiple possible causes, and only make a “big bet” (a full-time hire or major grant) where we feel the specific opportunity is outstanding. As such, we’ve created a relatively long prioritized list of causes, with goals for each, and our six-month goal is to be in the late stages of making a “big bet” in at least one area. We may continue to make smaller grants, with relatively light investigation, when we see reasonably strong opportunities, but this is not our main goal.

In order to determine which causes are most outstanding, we’re still putting substantial weight on the framework we outlined last May: looking for causes that (a) stand out on one of [importance, tractability or uncrowdedness], while (b) being competitive with other causes on the other two dimensions.

In addition, we’ve started separating issue areas by “need for a specialist,” as discussed above. On issues that demand a specialist, our main goal is to make a full-time hire; on others, our main goal is to wait and see what kinds of opportunities might be available (and potentially have existing generalist staff explore and make a grant if we find a credible opportunity). A third important category of cause is “shovel-ready” causes: causes where we have an unusually concrete sense of what (and in some cases whom) we could fund and the next step is largely deciding whether to do so.

A final note on our ranking of causes is that we’ve started more explicitly thinking of “high-venue” issues (issues where policy at the state and local level, not just the federal level, is relevant) as being both more complex and presenting more possible paths to impact that we can choose between. For this reason, we now list the “venues” for a cause separately in our spreadsheet.

Our highest priority is to hire and increase capacity in areas where we feel prepared to, and accordingly our current policy priorities list puts the causes that we’d be interested in hiring in at the top; they are followed by the strongest issues where we don’t have a good sense of what kinds of additional opportunities we could support, and those in turn are followed by our strongest “shovel-ready” issues. Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire for criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, areas that we find conceptually very promising but in which we aren’t currently aware of (multiple promising-seeming) potential grant opportunities, and accordingly aren’t ready to make full-time hires in. These priorities are followed by several issues on which we have a relatively specific idea of what we could fund, and the next steps would be to investigate in much greater depth to decide whether the specific potential grants were worth making.

An additional goal for the next several months is to write up the more recent work we’ve done, most of which is not yet public. We are experimenting with different processes for writing up completed investigations – in particular, trying to assign more of the work to more junior staff.

Public summary of our U.S. policy priorities


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